Battle Over Police Commission Looms

A group of city councilors is proposing the restoration of a Police Commission, whose citizen members would oversee policy, personnel decisions and—this is the one that’s reliably most controversial—discipline in the Springfield Police Department.

But according to Mayor Domenic Sarno, at least, they might as well save themselves the effort. As Pete Goonan reports in the Republican, the mayor is vowing to veto the proposal if it passes the Council. The Council can override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote.

The city had a Police Commission for years, and while it wasn’t always exactly a shining example of moral rectitude (yes, I’m talking about the years it was chaired by Gerry Phillips, who went on to serve time in federal prison on conspiracy and fraud convictions), supporters saw it as a means of holding the SPD publicly accountable, particularly in cases of alleged police brutality and misconduct. The commission was disbanded during the Ryan administration, as a way to remove then-Chief Paula Meara from her position. The commission was subsequently replaced with a civilian advisory board, although critics have dismissed that body as toothless window dressing.

Previous efforts to reinstate the commission have failed. This one will, too, if Sarno has his way. “The buck stops with me,” Sarno told Goonan. “Let the professionals run the department. Let’s take the politics out of it.”

The proposed ordinance calls for a five-member board, whose unpaid members would be appointed by the mayor and would meet monthly. The proposal is sponsored by Council President Mike Fenton, ward Councilors Zaida Luna, Melvin Edwards, E. Henry Twiggs and Orlando Ramos and at-large Councilor Bud Williams.

The Council will take up the proposal at its meeting next Monday.

The Police Commission issue will be fought out alongside the coming replacement of Police Commissioner William Fitchet, who plans to retire later this year. Sarno has said he will only consider local candidates for the job—specifically, one of the SPD’s three deputy chiefs.

That position, too, has generated plenty of controversy: Some agree with Sarno that the city would be best served by a local leader who knows the SPD and the community well, and worry that an out-of-towner won’t show the same level of commitment (a concern exacerbated by the hasty departure of Fitchet’s predecessor, Edward Flynn, who left town less than two years into his five-year contract).

But there’s also a vocal contingent, including the Springfield NACCP, that maintains that the city should cast a wide net to ensure that it finds the best candidate for the important job.

Jesse Lederman, a student and political activist (and, I think we can also safely assume, future office holder of some type), recently wrote an op-ed for the Advocate in which he argued the case for a Police Commission: “For decades now the police department has suffered from a disconnect with the public and been distracted by scandals, accusations of misconduct and a perception of weakness. Some of this is deserved; some is not. A police commission will restore public trust in our police department while allowing the department itself to function more effectively. It will create a better environment for officers, who will have a body to appeal to when they feel they have been treated unfairly. Furthermore, the chief will be able to focus less on administrative matters and will be removed from the political process, allowing for independence and professionalism.”

Author: On Springfield

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